In the frantic yearend season known as shiwasu (lit. "teachers running"), when even dignified people grow harried, a friend invited me to play hooky from the madness and take a ramble together around her Tokyo neighborhood. Since the gift of time together is a great one, I hopped the next train to Senju in Adachi Ward.
Back when Tokyo was still Edo (1603-1867), Senju was outside the city limits, northeast and across the Sumida River. In fact, once across the water, poet Matsuo Basho stopped in Senju in 1689 to write the first haiku in his travelogue, "Narrow Road to the Deep North," marking his departure from Edo. His sentiment was melancholic — "the spring is passing — / birds all mourn and fishes' / eyes are wet with tears" (trans. Tim Chilcott) — and he feared that he might never return home.
With no such poetic sentiments, I arrive at Kita Senju Station, now the nexus of several train and subway lines and, recently, bustling home to branches of several department store chains. At the West Exit, I quickly locate my friend, 60-year-old pottery-store owner Takae Kitahara, as she's waving to me ecstatically.
Straight off, we dart down an alleyway and stop in at shop Mood Moon, a mecca for geta (wooden clogs), some in styles I've never seen before. One pair, called pokkuri, are worn by girls for shitchi-go-san (celebrations for children aged 7, 5 and 3). They are lavish in red lacquer with maki-e (gold-powder painting) and a hollow, high platform. "When I was little," Kitahara says, "we used to tuck tiny bells in the hollow core. This geta was named for the sound it makes — 'pokkuri, pokkuri' — when you walk."
Shop owner Yoko Terazaki, 67, and her son Masayuki, 38, also show me awesome predecessors to Christian Louboutin's red-soled platforms, a pair of oiran koma geta — the kind worn by the highest- ranking Edo courtesans. Brand new, these geta are glossy black with red lacquer winking between the three, 25-cm-high "teeth" that constitute the sole. The shoe freak in me boots up, but my wallet stands to get trampled, so reluctantly I leave.
For consolation, Kitahara shows me a stone monument marking the original location of the Edo Period post town of Senju. Of Edo's five major kaido — roadways to distant parts that all started from the city's center at Nihonbashi — two, the Nikko-kaido leading to Nikko in present-day Tochigi Prefecture and the Oshu-kaido to Shirakawa in present-day Fukushima Prefecture, passed through Senju. Senju-juku, literally "1,000 inns," was one of Edo's four major post towns tasked with offering travelers rest, food and horses for their journeys — the others being Naito Shinjuku, Shinagawa and Itabashi.
We head north on the road once clanging with shoguns, armies, merchants and lords, and now lined with hamburger joints, hair salons and the usual hoi polloi of shopping streets.
When Kitahara disappears suddenly into a bakery, I am loathe to follow; I need cake like I need antique platform geta. Inside, I find that Domremy Outlet offers not just ordinary confections but a whole counter of seriously discounted "seconds." Kitahara fondles a fat pillow roll of sponge cake that would feed six; at ¥100 she snaps it up.
Next, we take a quick look at Utuwa Banki, a select shop of Japanese handicrafts — carved spoons, lacquered boxes, thrown bowls. I want to dawdle, but Kitahara, familiar with such things in her own shop, urges me on down the road. Gradually, the street's profile sinks into low-rise buildings and funky storefronts of painted murals and murky glass.
Clearly still food-oriented, Kitahara comes full stop in front of kamaboko (fish cake) shop Maruishi Masuei. She orders two hanpen, simmered white triangles of fish paste and glutinous yam. We bite into the steaming clouds, dripping right there on the street, but the cooks at Masuei ignore us as they continue mixing and patting together prize-winning cakes full of shrimp, burdock root, eggplant and other vegetables.
Fortified, Kitahara next shows me two Edo Period homes, one across from the other. First, we slide back the flimsy doors at Emaya Yoshida, where eighth- generation artisan Choko Yoshida continues her family's 250 years of tradition, hand-painting ema (wooden votive plaques) and chiguchi ando (Edo- style paper lanterns used for entranceways). Now that I have a name for them, I realize I have seen several chiguchi ando outside restaurants on our walk already, lovingly laminated against the elements.
Yoshida's workshop is chilly, but fresh air ameliorates the pungency of the inks and pigments she uses. I ask what is the hardest part of the work. "It's all hard," Yoshida replies. "I've been doing this since I was 30, when my dad died. I do it only because it's what I can do." I hear exhaustion in her voice, but hundreds of recently painted wares stacked in the shop are explanation enough. I learn that a custom lantern can be ordered from Yoshida at a very reasonable ¥3,800, and I think how nice it would be to see a friend's name in that light.
Across the street, the home of 87-year-old Sakichi Yokoyama features delicately latticed second-floor windows and a broad front once made for hitching horses. Yokoyama tells me it was built 150 years ago. "Of course, it has seen some renovations since then," he says, laughing mischievously. "My parents changed some parts when I was in middle school, so that makes the new elements about 70 years old."
Sitting on his tatami, the winter day's quiet broken only by the occasional shriek of a brown-eared bulbul outside, dapper Yokoyama recounts his family's prosperous past in the wholesale asakusagami (recycled paper) business. "I used to watch bullcarts loaded with vegetables across the Arakawa River, and people carried well water in buckets on their shoulders. I remember riding around town with my mom, older sister and her husband, and our cat in a rearcar attached to a bike."
Yokoyama points to a photo of his father, ankle deep in the river waters that used to flood Senju every year or so. Is the naked boy in the photo Sakichi? He shakes his head vigorously and laughs. "I don't know who that is, but it's not me!"
Not wishing to wear out our welcome, we prepare to move on. But not so fast. Yokoyama leads us to one of his home's support beams. "See those three chunks of missing wood?" We nod. "They were sliced out by a samurai sword," he says. "At the end of the Boshin War, the Tokugawa shogunate and samurai lost to pro- Imperial forces in 1886. The samurai retreated from Ueno, and passed through Senju, probably full of frustration," Yokoyama says, shaking his head. "Those cuts have been analyzed, and could only have been made by a really good sword."
Impressed, we thank Yokoyama for his time, then Kitahara makes a beeline for, of all things, more food.
At Kadoya Yarikake Dango, we share a skewer of their popular mitarashi dango. The lightly grilled rice dumplings, gleaming beneath a tantalizing sauce of soy, sugar and starch, explain Kadoya's 63 years in business.
Further fortified, we head north, and I take photos of shutters rusted to beauty, almost missing Kitahara as she veers down a narrow lane. She knocks at the door to a 200-year-old kura (storehouse). Chipper 36-year-old illustrator Eri Nakada answers and leads us into her tidy two-story studio. "It's an oven in summer and a freezer in winter," she admits, pulling out some of her work to show. "But I love it."
Nakada's sketches are deceptively simple — pencil and minimal watercolor accents — but they crackle with light, immediacy and warmth. Born far to the north in Iwate Prefecture, Nakada moved to Tokyo in 2001 to study architecture, leaving behind a father who was very ill.
"I wrote to my dad every day about this area — the food, the public bath, and so on — and illustrated 110 postcards for him before he died," she recounts. From that act of love grew a career, and now Nakada's work is widely published, including in Senju, where she is something like the official town illustrator.
Kitahara and I realize Nakada is busy, so we mosey on, heading toward the Arakawa River boundary of Senju. Just before we arrive, Kitahara marches through a parking lot, mumbling something about fixing bones.
Puzzled, I follow. Soon I realize that Nagura Iin (1770), a bone-setting clinic, is also a sight to see, with an elegant nagayamon (longhouse gate) and buildings from the Edo Period. Nagura descendents still practice orthopedics and run a modern hospital in Tokyo, near Kanda, but the beauty of the garden behind this original clinic, flushed with blood-red maple leaves swirling around a massive lantern, feels good to the bone.
Back at the station, Kitahara presents me with the Domremy cake she bought, and there's the icing on this gift of a day.